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Eilis O Cancelling our health insurance is an absolute sickener

Posted on April 6 2013

Conditions have been bad for a few years, and we keep hoping that next year will be better, warmer, more bearable; but it never is. Winters, like the recession, just keep getting worse, with no end in sight to the misery as we're battered by one fiscal and actual storm after another.

The weather isn't simply adding insult to our trials. It's providing a personal soundtrack. The clank and clatter of the letterbox is another of the sounds that define the times. Usually it's just bills we don't want to think about and bank statements we're afraid to look at. This week it was a letter from my health insurer, explaining that payments on my policy would be going up from 120 to 190 a month.

That's an increase of approximately 60 per cent in a single year, which was bad enough, but it felt even worse. In my head, I'd always thought of 120 as one hundred euros, and rationalised the expense as such, whereas 190 felt like two hundred euros, and suddenly looked much less sustainable. I rang up and spoke to a sympathetic woman who explained that I'd been getting free child places last year and there have been a few other increases in the meantime. Lots of people were noticing a big increase in their premiums when it came to renewing for another year, all of whom were as dismayed as I was. The upshot was that the health insurance would have to go.

That's how we're all living right now. Finding savings here and there to ease the pressures on reduced, and still falling, incomes in order to sustain mortgages on houses that can't be sold because of the property crash. It's cold, but you delay putting on the central heating until the point where not putting it on becomes ridiculous.

It's not pleasant, but you manage, because there's no choice. So when the Personal Insolvency Service publishes guidelines next week showing the sacrifices which customers who go into arrears on their mortgages will be expected to make if they want help in easing their debt burden, many of the measures will already feel familiar. Sky TV? Check. That was the first thing to go in our house.

Foreign holidays? The only reason I made it to the sun for a few weeks last year was by arranging a house swap with a French family - and very grateful I was for it too. Second car? I'm lucky enough to have access to good public transport, so have only ever had one, but if I did have a second car I'd be happy to get rid of it in a shot.

Listening to the vox pops on the radio, there was a clear divide between those who considered such demands on households to be perfectly reasonable and those who regarded them as draconian. I couldn't help wondering if the divide was really between those who have already been making these adjustments to their spending and those who are still avoiding the need to trim their budgetary sails.

It's only natural for those of us who have cut back sharply to feel slightly resentful when others who expect help with their debts still haven't.

Forcing families to give up health insurance may be a step too far. I certainly felt like I was tempting fate by cancelling my policy, but if you have to take the kids out of private school, or put up with the Irish weather for a while instead of jetting off to the Canaries, then sorry, but that's just what you're going to have to do. It's not going to save the country a cent if the children taken out of private schools all end up looking for places in the state sector; indeed, giving up all those other little luxuries which make life more pleasant doesn't help the economy much either, as it was those non-essential impulse buys that kept many shops ticking over and employing staff. The Personal Insolvency Service will be no friend to the Irish retail sector, that's for sure.

But that's another debate. The point is that if your family needs to spend less, then your family should just get on with the job of spending less.

Making those sacrifices would be much easier to bear, however, if there was any sense that the Government presiding over this new, joyless, utilitarian spirit of austerity showed the slightest sign of understanding what it's like to have to make such dramatic and contentment-draining changes to normal family life. But they don't.

Rather than feeling privileged and suitably humble for their own good fortune, ministers seem increasingly to feel that they're entitled to their own pleasures, as if by right, as if they've earned them, while simultaneously chiding the little people who have the audacity to imagine they should be able to enjoy second cars and Sky Sports too.

Pat Rabbitte actually said last week that he considers the Department of the Environment's criteria for deciding which ghost estates should be exempt from property tax, and which should be liable, as "fair", as if people should be grateful to their betters for having such luxuries as pavements and a sewerage connection. There was a time when they wouldn't have dreamed of talking like this to us peasants and, more importantly, wouldn't have wanted to. Now they do on both counts.

The weird thing is how little time it took. They've only been in office a couple of years, if you don't count the time they spent as ministers in the Nineties, and of course they don't really like to talk about those days, for some reason. If this is what they're like after two years, imagine how unpleasantly callous they're going to be after five. Or 10.

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